President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress would very much like you to know that they are victims of betrayal—not by General Michael Flynn, who withheld information about his post-election discussions with Russian intelligence agents and has since resigned as national security advisor. The real culprit, in their eyes? Whoever leaked that information to the press.
“It’s a criminal act,” President Trump said Thursday during a press conference, adding that he’d ordered the Justice department to investigate the leaks.
What Trump and his defenders miss, though, is that leaks aren’t antithetical to American democracy at all. They help uphold it. In fact, they even predate it.
One Nation, Under Leaks
Since Flynn’s departure, following allegations he discussed sanctions on a phone call with the Russians, Trump has defended the general, calling him “a wonderful man,” while simultaneously lashing out at leakers, and the media for reporting on those leaks. Meanwhile, House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz has also asked the Department of Justice to investigate the release of classified information, even as he’s said there’s no reason for the committee to further investigate Flynn’s actions.
In a series of tweets, Trump denounced whoever shared the information as “low-life leakers” and “un-American.” But that’s not altogether true. Flip through any history book, and it’s clear political leaks have existed in America since, well, even before America existed. Historians often regard Benjamin Franklin as one of the country’s first whistleblowers, for leaking incriminating letters about British loyalist and then-Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson in 1773, which helped stoke resentment of the Brits in advance of the Revolutionary War.
“Leaking is a longstanding practice in American politics,” says Rahul Sagar, a political science professor at New York University and author of the book Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy.
What may make the Trump administration leaks—which range from executive order drafts to classified conversations—seem extraordinary is the unprecedented pace.
“This is a faucet, not a fine mesh sieve,” says Candice Delmas, professor of philosophy and political science at Northeastern University.
The full extent of the leaks, and their impact, remains to be seen. The deluge could wound the Trump administration, forcing Congress to investigate Russia’s alleged connections to Trump staffers, past and present. It could also, perversely, help keep any single report from sticking.
“We’re in a situation where there’s a dangerous amount of confusion about what the facts are,” says Margaret Kwoka, a professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. An abundance of anonymously sourced leaks, she says, “adds to the confusion lots of folks are feeling about how to understand what the Trump administration is doing.”
A Perfect Storm for Leaks
Wannabe whistleblowers and concerned government officials have a leg up on historical leakers. “You don’t need a Xerox machine like Daniel Ellsberg did,” says Columbia Law School professor David Pozen, referring to the military analyst who released top-secret Vietnam War documents now known as the Pentagon Papers. “You just need a thumb drive.”
And as government digitizes its files, the government itself has also grown, particularly its intelligence ranks. “America didn’t even have a fully fledged intelligence apparatus until the 1950s,” says Sagar. Now, there are just more people with potential access to sensitive information.
But if these conditions set the stage for the current era of leaks, President Trump’s own attitude toward the intelligence community put the play in motion. Even before he was elected, Trump denied the intelligence community’s assessment that the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee, famously arguing during one debate that the hacker “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” Trump has since been openly hostile toward the intelligence community, a group with plenty of access to sensitive information.
Reports have also indicated that Trump hasn’t gone through standard communication channels since taking office, potentially rattling career civil servants. The executive order issuing a ban on travelers and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, for instance, reportedly didn’t receive much input from the Justice Department or Department of Homeland Security.
“Career folks who are experts in their field may be understandably feeling the process here is somehow broken,” says Kwoka.
Add to that the fact that Republicans now control not just the White House but also the House and the Senate. Disgruntled government officials may view the press as the only functioning mechanism to hold the executive branch accountable, Sagar says. Leaks, he argues, “strengthen the hand of investigators,” and give even Republican legislators the permission they need to act. Already, we’re seeing that play out, as Republican leaders like Senators Marco Rubio and John Cornyn call for an investigation into Flynn and Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election.
A New Paradigm
The White House springing raises two crucial questions. The first: How will the Trump administration respond?
According to Pozen, who authored the article, “The Leaky Leviathan: Why the Government Condemns and Condones Unlawful Disclosures of Information” in the Harvard Law Review, every administration also benefits from planting their own leaks, to float policy proposals and surreptitiously influence and gauge public opinion. By cracking down on leaks in general, the government would be compromising its own objectives.
At least, that’s how it’s been in the past. But it’s unclear how that will work under the Trump administration, Pozen says. Not only has President Trump publicly promised to catch leakers, but Pozen says the President has already created a media channel of his own—his Twitter feed—that’s so powerful, he may not believe he needs the mainstream media in the same way anymore.
The second question is whether so many leaks ultimately serve the public interest. In the past, when there were fewer news organizations, it was easier for the media to rally public outrage about scandals like Watergate or the Vietnam War. But this week, conservative outlets like Breitbart have followed Trump’s lead in covering the news about Flynn, focusing on the illegality of the leaks, instead of the content itself.
“We end up in a very confusing complex world of contradictory leaks, contradictory stories, and multiple explanations,” Sagar says. “It becomes a world in which conspiracy theory becomes the norm.”
The irony in all of this, of course, is that the illegal disclosure of private information is what helped President Trump defeat Hillary Clinton during the election in the first place. Unlike recent leaks coming out of the White House, the emails Wikileaks published from the DNC and from John Podesta’s emails were all hacked. And yet, then-candidate Trump spent little time dwelling on the perpetrator of the hacks. Instead, he frequently tweeted about Wikileaks and praised the organization from the stump.
In his press conference today, Trump defended that imbalance. “In one case, you’re talking about highly classified information,” he said. “In the other case, you’re talking about John Podesta saying bad things about the boss.”
That’s an important distinction. But if the disclosure of top-secret information really does concern Trump so much, then he should be at least as concerned about information obtained via hacking, Kwoka says. “For folks working within government, generally moral guideposts do play a role in leaks,” she says. “When you have hacks, none of that comes into play. It may just be all downside.”
No one knows how the future will play out. But just a month into his term, the same mechanisms that were Trump’s biggest advantage during the election have become his biggest liability. That’s understandably frustrating—but it’s far from un-American.